Opener Predicts Champion

Want to find the favorite for the 2004 IRL IndyCar Series championship? Look no further than the driver who takes the checkered flag in the season-opening Toyota Indy 300 on Feb. 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Beginning with Buzz Calkins' win in the first-ever IndyCar Series race at Walt Disney World Speedway in 1996, four of the eight drivers who have won the IndyCar Series championship opened their title-winning seasons with a victory in the first race.

Since the IndyCar Series shifted its season opener to Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2002, both drivers who have won the race there, Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Dixon, also have walked away with the title at the end of the season.

"I think it's kind of a combination between the tracks and how you run them," said Hornish Jr., who also used a victory in the opener at Phoenix as a springboard to his title in 2001. "The track has changed a bit, but getting the season off to a good winning start helps you do well in the championship."

Dixon, who won in his series debut at Homestead en route to his title last season, agreed with his rival for the 2003 title, saying his victory helped kick start his season.

"I think winning is a good way to start the season," said Dixon, who drives for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. "It gets the team motivated. I don't think you have to win the first race to win the title, but it certainly helps team morale."

Hornish, who moved from Panther Racing to Marlboro Team Penske over the winter, is familiar with the role Dixon will play this season. Hornish is the only IndyCar Series champion to successfully defend his title and knows the pressure associated with a title defense.

"It's tough because of the expectations," Hornish said. "Last year, when we were trying to do a three-peat, the pressure was huge. It's hard to repeat for one year, but to be the guy two years straight is very difficult."
Dixon, though, believes his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team is capable of handling that pressure.

"I think there isn't a reason we can't (repeat)," he said. "At this stage in the preseason, I think we will race well. I think we have as good a chance as anyone else at winning the title.

"Because the cars have changed so much from last year, (the IndyCar Series) is more a circuit where many people could have a chance to win. If you'd asked me after last year if I could repeat my title, I'd say the chances were no. But this year, I think chances to repeat are better."

The 2004 IndyCar Series season begins with the Toyota Indy 300 on Feb. 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It will be broadcast live on ESPN and the IMS Radio Network. The Menards Infiniti Pro Series season begins with the Homestead-Miami 100 on Feb. 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It will be broadcast on a tape delay basis on ESPN2 at 4 p.m. on March 4.

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